Sustainable Screen printing, Part I


blood, sweat, and gypsum tears

As a chalk artist, I’ve preferred the classic simplicity of white chalk on a black board. But every now and then a client requests something a bit more colorful, and I’m reminded of how pervasive its dust is. 

A quick glance in the bathroom mirror confirms that the same green I’ve been laying down on the board has found its way across the back of my jeans, streaked itself through my hair, and created an emerald haze around my left eyebrow. I blow my nose and confirm that—yes—it’s there too.

Lucky for me, when I stumbled into art I happened to choose about the least-toxic medium that exists—white chalk is 100% gypsum —so it’s not overly concerning when it ends up smooshed into my every pore.

CHALK JELLYFISH | Chalk is made from calcium sulfate (aka gypsum, aka CaSO4), which is the most common mineral sulfate on the earth, and is left behind when sea water evaporates. It’s also what makes White Sands National Monument so white, and sandy, and soft!

CHALK JELLYFISH | Chalk is made from calcium sulfate (aka gypsum, aka CaSO4), which is the most common mineral sulfate on the earth, and is left behind when sea water evaporates. It’s also what makes White Sands National Monument so white, and sandy, and soft!

toxic art...?

But what about other media? From toxic pigments to smelly solvents, making art can bring us—and the environment—into contact with some pretty nasty chemicals. So when I started to think about taking up a medium that had more staying power than chalk, my primary goal was to do so without drastically increasing the environmental footprint of the product.

I decided to start with screen printing, because it’s not too daunting as a DIY project (thanks, YouTube), and, from the paints to the cleaning supplies, I figured I’d have good control over the materials I chose to work with.

So a couple months ago I set out to identify a screen printing ink that was non-toxic and biodegradable that I could feel solid about using. About a hundred hours of research later (I wish I was joking), I can safely say that no one on the internet has any idea what they’re talking about when it comes to the environmental footprint of screen printing, BUT, everyone who’s anyone has their own opinion. 


Sorting through the crap 

I’ll attempt to organize all of my research into a more useful guide in the coming weeks, but for now here are the general trends that I feel fairly confident in sharing:*

The players:

  • ~5 years ago, the screen printing industry started to clean up its act, which is good because before that it was a hot mess. (Yay)
  • As a result, most of the products available on the market today are at least a little less toxic than they were even in the recent past, and consequently much of the information on web now appears to be outdated. (Yay)
  • The chemical industry cohort likes to talk about how environmentally savvy their screen printing products are. They slap the word “green” onto as many of their products as they can, even when they are green in neither color nor disposition. (Boo)

  • The environmental cohort likes to talk about how toxic the products used in screen printing are. In 2018, many of the toxic ingredients this cohort is raging about often (but not always) fail to materialize on Safety Data Sheets (SDS), where they would be required by law to appear, were they present. (Boo-Yay?)


The products:

  • In general, DISCHARGE INKS, whether water-based or otherwise, contain ingredients that receive higher toxicity ratings from the EPA than those in plastisol inks and water-based (non-discharge) inks. (Boo)

  • In general, PLASTISOL INKS appear to be more environmentally friendly than Discharge Inks, but less environmentally friendly than standard Water-Based Inks for a few reasons: 

    • The cleaning agents necessary for plastisol inks often include chemicals that are toxic to the environment and the people using them. (Boo)

    • The manufacture of Polyvinyl Chloride (the plastic in plastisol) requires inputs that are toxic to human health. (Boo)

    • In larger scale printing operations that use dryers, more energy must be used to cure water-based inks than plastisol inks, so plastisol wins over water-based in this particular category. (Yay)

    • The end product is a piece of fabric with plastic on it; the plastic won’t biodegrade and can’t be recycled, and will release highly toxic fumes if incinerated. (Boo)

  • WATER-BASED INKS, (of the non-discharge variety) have become much more common in recent years, and in general have fewer concerning ingredients than either discharge or plastisol ink. PSA: Don't assume that because it’s water-based and the website says “environmentally friendly,” that it is actually environmentally friendly. Always read the SDS and other credentials for each product to get a better picture of environmental and health impact. (Yay)

  • A couple companies are making relatively safe water-based & biodegradable emulsion strippers and other cleaners, which is great news for the artists who use them, as well as our water systems. (Yay)


Conclusion & coming soon

At the end of the day, it's going to be difficult to find a truly leave-no-trace form of screen printing, but I'm going to keep trying! Stay tuned for Part II of this series, in which I'll experiment with making my own screen printing inks using sustainable materials with names I can pronounce. It might be an utter failure, in which case I'll have to decide whether or not I'm ok using an industrial water-based ink that I feel only 85% good about. In the meantime, I'll continue researching the products available on the market for Part III of this series, my guide on sustainability and screen printing. 


Ciao makers!

*Disclaimer: I’ve done my best to trace things back to primary sources here and I have a strong background in human physiology, but A) I’m not a chemist, and B) there is a dizzying amount of bad and missing information on the web about this topicso don’t hate on me if I’ve gotten something wrong—just let me know and send me a primary source so I can update my list!